Home sales in region rose 4.3% in March

Average price increased 9% for existing houses

City led local subdivisions

Sales fell in Baltimore, Harford, Arundel counties

April 12, 2003|By Trif Alatzas | Trif Alatzas,SUN STAFF

Existing-home sales in the Baltimore metropolitan area rose 4.3 percent last month compared with March 2002 and the average sales price increased 9.09 percent as housing continues to help prop up the local economy.

Sales in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties rose to 3,032 homes in March compared with 2,907 in the corresponding month last year, according to figures released yesterday by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the Rockville listing company used by agents and brokers. The average sales price rose to $184,904.

While housing activity has slowed nationally, the local market continues to show strength as the industry gears up for its busiest time of the year. Local agents said buyers continue to flood open houses even as fewer homes are for sale.

Baltimore saw the biggest gains in both sales and price. City sales rose 19.33 percent to 821 homes, while the average sales price rose 18.74 percent to $97,895 compared with March 2002.

"If something is the right price and the right product in an area that's in demand, it flies off the shelf," said Jay Marotte, an associate broker for Prudential Carruthers Realtors' Baltimore office.

The average home in the region took 66 days to sell last month as opposed to 78 days in March last year.

Prices rose in every jurisdiction last month. But sales dipped in Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Harford suffered the biggest dip with sales down 7.12 percent.

Real estate experts said limited inventory in a time of strong demand remains the prime factor driving price increases. Even with mortgage interest rates at historic lows, potential buyers interested in trading up have not been able to find replacement homes. That has prevented them from placing their existing homes on the market, agents said. There were 6,607 homes listed in the region last month - a 14.25 percent drop from March 2002.

"There is some reluctance to get the ball rolling by selling their house because then they're on the hook and under pressure to find one," said Jody Landers, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

Pending contracts - a good gauge of future sales activity - were up 3.91 percent to 3,824.

The Mortgage Bankers Association of America revised its predictions on 30-year mortgage rates this week, saying it expects them to average 6 percent for 2003, down from 6.5 percent last year. The group also raised its estimates for loan volume this year, saying an expected $2.6 trillion will surpass last year's record. About 60 percent of those loans will reflect refinancing activity.

But some housing experts worry that a growing number of homeowners are falling behind on their mortgage payments and that home prices could stagnate. A weakened job market could increase those figures.

In Maryland, the seasonally adjusted percentage of mortgage payments 30 or more days past due for all home loans rose to 5.95 percent in the final quarter of last year - up from 5.5 percent in the third quarter. The figure was down from 6.27 percent at the end of 2001.

The National Association of Realtors said earlier this week that it expects 5.53 million sales of existing homes this year, down less than 1 percent from 2002's record. The sales price nationally is expected to rise 4.8 percent - compared with last year's 7.1 percent increase, which was the highest since 1980.

"You hear a lot of talk that these values can't be sustained," said Barbara E. Schmitt, president of the Maryland Mortgage Bankers Association. "We may see a slower growth rate but we're all in hopes that we won't see a reversal of growth."

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